Performers include male lava lizards doing push-ups on basalt gyms, indescribably adorable baby sea lions careening for your snorkel mask and then avoiding impact at the last second, and whistling, grunting blue-footed boobies, whose wings flash skyward and painted webbed feet slowly rise and fall in a curious mating dance. Cue the standing ovation.
During the (at least) twice-daily shore walks, one expedition leader and three naturalist guides provide the commentary and answers to any question on the islands' flora and fauna. You can stick with your favorite guide or simply get in line and end up with whoever is nearby. When snorkeling is offered, which is nearly every day, passengers can opt instead to take a scenic cruise on the glass-bottom boat. On a few occasions -- for instance when there's a lovely, sheltered cove -- sea kayaks may materialize. If there is a choice of activities, passengers are asked to add their name to a signup sheet in the lobby. (No one will be turned away -- it's just to help the staff with logistics.)
Daytime lectures evoke memories of high school biology, with the ecology of fish and an explanation of why, geologically speaking, the Galapagos developed the way they did (the so-called "hot spot") among the offerings.
Every night there's a briefing given by one of the naturalists, who may dive into another scientific subject (plate tectonics) and then outline the schedule and highlights for the next day. This is followed by a Q&A, should any Q's arise to be A'ed.
A BBC docu-drama, the three-part "Galapagos End of the World," for instance, may be shown on the twin projection screens during afternoon intra-island transits.
Chatting with the diverse passengers, united in their love for offbeat world travel, can provide entertainment and inspiration for your next trip, be it by land or sea.
La Pinta's combination observation lounge-lecture room-bar features 270 degrees of panoramic windows, a spotting scope and an eager barman ready to dole out pisco sours (minus the raw egg white, which tops the traditional version of the frothy drink), blue margaritas and Club Premiums (Ecuadorian pilsner). Spinnable blue chairs are clustered around twin pull-down projection screens used for multimedia presentations and next-day briefings, which precede dinner each night. The majority of drinks range from about $2.50 for a soda to $4 for a beer to $10 for a cocktail. (Passengers settle the bill at the end of the cruise.) The space also features one of two TV's on the ship. (The other is in the lobby.) Both scroll through hi-res wildlife pictures and a spreadsheet of the day's schedule.
Two Web-ready computer terminals and the self-service coffee machine are set up in an adjacent tiny "Expedition Library," which features a number of titles from Darwin, on Darwin and about Darwin's discoveries. The spines also reveal recommended Galapagos-related reading (memoirs, mysteries), nature photo-filled books, tomes on South America and a handful of left-behind pulp paperbacks. Wi-Fi, available in the library and lecture room, is $40 for unlimited use on a weeklong cruise and $20 for both the three- and four-nighters. Connection can be spotty, but that's perfectly understandable.
La Pinta's lobby houses a candy jar, seasickness pill goodie basket and signup sheets for deep-water snorkeling, panga rides and glass-bottom boat trips (for the non-snorkelers). The space also features a small gift shop, offering a selection of necessaries -- sunglasses with strap, toothbrushes, sun block, single-use underwater camera , aloe -- plus a bit of apropos kitsch ("I Love Boobies" T-shirts).
Should you get motion sickness -- and the most swaying is typically felt in August, September and October, say the naturalists -- there is a doctor onboard. His small examination room is located adjacent to the lobby. Passengers who've been bitten in half by a bull sea lion (the so-called beachmasters) will be out of luck, but the doc can offer creams for wasp stings, pills for gastro- and virus-related ailments and something slightly acidic for the occasional jelly fish-related issue. Achievable onboard medical care is included in the price of the cruise.
The top deck houses La Pinta's four pangas (and a crane to deliver them to the water), a glass-bottom boat and five tandem kayaks. Snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel and fin) and rented wetsuits ($30 for the week; some tour operators who sell Metropolitan cruises include this in the price) are initially doled out there. Nearby is the bridge, which is open to passengers any time, apart from when the ship is maneuvering in or out of port. The captain makes regular appearances throughout the cruise, and he (or anyone else manning the bridge) is happy to talk ship.
It's not a public room, per se, but Deck 1 aft features a pull-out platform, which typically serves as one of two panga launch points or, very occasionally, a swim-off dock. (A pangero keeps watch during the designated cool-off times.) This is also where passenger wetsuits, sandals and snorkel gear hang out to dry. Finally, there's a single clothes dryer, which is free to use and shared among passengers and crew.
Every day features a guided nature walk, some more rigorous (uphill, over lava) than others. Still, extreme trekking this is not. There are always innumerable stops to ogle a red-legged Swallow-Tailed Gull squatting over its newborn chick or a land iguana rolling spines off a cactus fruit before greedily devouring the pod. During the hikes, sometimes over rough lava -- ropy Pahoehoe and rubble-filled aa (pronounced ah-ah) -- proper footwear is essential. Bring a hat and water, too. Despite the slow pace, the equatorial sun can certainly wear down even the hardiest eco-passenger.
Phenomenal snorkeling is offered almost every day. Listen to the guides: they say the best course is to float and observe because water temperatures, especially in the cool season (about 70 degrees), can sap energy. There are wetsuits for rent, and they're especially necessary between June/July and December ($15 for three- and four-night cruises; $30 for weeklong cruises).
The ship also carries tandem, sit-on-top kayaks, which are pulled out a couple times per cruise for casual paddles.
Back onboard, La Pinta has a tiny fitness room with a Lifestyle-brand bicycle, elliptical and treadmill machines, along with a few assorted dumbbells. A framed picture of a loin-clothed Amazonian racing with spear poised provides extra encouragement. There is no spa, but the top deck features a hot tub that can snugly accommodate six passengers. A few wicker sunbeds and a handful of other outdoor seating setups are scattered throughout La Pinta's open spaces.
While there are no children's facilities on La Pinta, a Galapagos trip is fantastic family unit fodder -- though the price for four or more can be a deal-breaker. (There is some discounting for those 12 and younger, typically 25 percent off.) June, July and August attract the largest number of families, and the affable guides -- who've clearly retained their sense of childlike wonder -- pay particular attention to the smaller cruisers. The ship's tiny library may feature an Uno deck and Galapagos-related board game, and Texas Hold'em and Go Fish battles are hatched during down-times. Though some would call it anathema, bringing a Nintendo DS for the occasional scenic sail or skipped onshore outing isn't a completely baseless idea.
The minimum age to cruise on La Pinta is 6. The youngest age acceptable for a Galapagos cruise? That depends on the interest and maturity level of the child, but Darwin's ideas, while indescribably profound, can seem elegantly simple in the right hands. Still, more than one guide thought that 12 was probably the most appropriate minimum age.